The theme of human empathy lifts a simple story of everyday poverty into resonant emotion in Goutam Ghose’s masterfully told The Wayfarers (Raahgir). If at first the heroine seems likely to collapse under her trials of Job, the story takes an unexpected turn when she hits the road in search of daily work to feed her family and encounters a cheerful, generous man as poor as she is. Directed by acclaimed Bengali filmmaker Goutam Ghose (The Crossing), it’s a film destined to reward the niches following its bows at Busan and then Mumbai Film Festival.
The opening scene looks familiar enough: a woman alone in the forest is attacked by two men on a motorbike. Nathuni (Tillotama Shome, Monsoon Wedding), a thin young hill woman, is carrying a load of firewood on her head when her would-be rapists appear out of nowhere. Though she is tough enough to try to fight them off, it is left unclear whether or not the rape happens.
In any case she doesn’t mention the incident at home, a simple cabin on a hillside where she struggles to feed her two school-age kids and her invalid husband, who became paralyzed in a popular uprising over land abuse and a confrontation with the police. Up to this point it’s just another grim story of crushing poverty and injustice. Then Nathuni hits the road to look for work and buy food.
On her walk to town over rolling hills and dales, she soon meets Lakhua (Adil Hussain from Life of Pi) who is on the same mission. His backstory as an orphan and wandering acrobat and dancer is briefly sketched in, while Hussain turns on the charm and makes him a strong, caring fellow with a big heart. Though crustier and more wary (and we saw why), Shome’s Nathuni also has a soft, compassionate side. Their empathy for others is sorely tested when they meet a traveling vendor (Neeraj Kabi) who is on his way to the hospital with two half-dead old village beggars. His rickety cart has gotten mired in deep mud and he begs for help pushing it onto the road. Making it even more impossible, his motorbike is broken and he asks them to help him push the cart all the way to town, a staggering distance.
It’s curious that the Hindi title Raahgir means not only passerby, but is the watchword of an urban movement to close traffic-clogged streets on designated car-free days. Here the problem is rather the reverse. There is almost no traffic at all on the rutted country roads that wash out in heavy rainfall. Ghose describes this isolated rural setting as a harsh but beautiful land that has attracted the eye of developers but is still intact. In contrast to its dirt roads and dire poverty are glimpses of city dwellers who party at a waterfall, and the steady stream of trucks and cars on the highway. Needless to say, no one stops to help the heroic trio push their cart to town.
Notably, Ghose offers no easy consolation to Nathuni and Lakhua, no budding romance, no heavenly compensation for their great act of generosity. A day of back-breaking work in a gravel quarry is their only reward, followed by a rainy night spent under a shelter beside the highway.
The film has the simplicity of a fable and its pity for the poor of the earth recalls the films of Charlie Chaplin, only here there is little comedy to sweeten the pill. It comes as a visual shock to see the dazzling brightly colored costumes of the dance troupe that Lakhua belonged to as a boy before he was abruptly forced out of his paradise. Ghose’s music blends tragic and humorous moods.
Production company: Adarsh Telemedia
Cast: Adil Hussain, Tillotama Shome, Neeraj Kabi, Onkar Das Manikpuri
Director, music: Goutam Ghose
Screenwriters: Goutam Ghose, Jagannath Guha, Rashid Iqbal, Prafula Roy
Producer: Amit Agarwal
Director of photography: Ishaan Ghose
Production designers: Somnath Pakre
Costume designer: Neelanjana Ghose
Editor: Niladri Roy
Venue: Mumbai Film Festival (Spotlight)